Joe McEwen: Honoring Family and the Military

by Emily Akin-

Joe McEwen of Troy is a veteran of the United States Air Force. He honors all veterans every day by preserving his family’s military history and collecting military memorabilia. Joe grew up in the Troy area, the son of Joe and Frances McEwen. He graduated high school in 1955 and married Ann Caldwell, also a native of Obion County, that same year. The Korean War was winding down but not over. The cease-fire was signed in July of 1953, but the actual peace treaty was not signed until July of 1956.

McEwen knew that he would likely be drafted for military service. In 1956, he enlisted in the U. S. Air Force for four years. He served much of his time in the service at Lajes Field on the island of Terceira in the Azores, a group of nine islands in the Atlantic (900 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal). He was trained in air to ground radio relay and later worked with newer technology on bomb navigation equipment. He also spent some of his enlistment at Hunter Air Field near Savannah, Georgia. While in the service, McEwen met famous people like former President Nixon (who was Vice President at the time). Nixon was on a flight that stopped to refuel at Lajes Field. McEwen was especially honored to meet Air Force General Curtis LeMay of WWII fame and Commander of the Eighth Air Force. LeMay had been involved in developing many of the strategies used by the U. S. in both the European and Pacific theaters. After the war, LeMay organized the Berlin airlift. He also served as Air Force Chief of Staff in Washington near the end of this career.

When McEwen’s enlistment expired in 1960, he returned to Obion County. He was required to be in the Air Force Reserve for two years, so final discharge didn’t come until August, 1962. In October of that same year, he received a recall notice. “I filled out the papers and sent them back, but I never heard anything else from them.” For the next few years he worked at various jobs at Brown Shoe Company, City of Troy, and Reelfoot Packing Company. Eventually, he took a job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber and worked there for 28 years in the mixing plant.

Since he can remember, Joe has collected military memorabilia. Perhaps that’s because an interest in the military and military service runs in the family. His great-grandfather fought in the War Between the States (or Civil War). His father did not serve in WWWII because he had a farming exemption. But his uncle, his father’s brother, fought in Europe. His mother’s brother, who was in General Patton’s unit, served in Europe and was wounded twice. McEwen’s brothers served in the Army and the Navy, mostly during the Korean era, but one was still serving at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict. “You could say that I served during the Cold War,” McEwen said. “But, I lost a classmate and a neighbor in the Vietnam War.”

McEwen shares his memorabilia collection often. It includes hats, clothing, uniforms, weapons, ammunition, mess equipment, photos, and much more. He has been invited to local senior centers and schools to show the items, describe where they came from, and create interest in our military history. Asked where he got the items in his collection, he said, “Oh, flea markets, trade shows, gun shows, and also from friends.” Former mayor of Troy, Lester Hailey, who was a quartermaster in the army, helped him find some items. Everyone knew of McEwen’s interest and would let him know if they became aware of something he might want to check out. He has items from the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and more recent military conflicts. Some of his memorabilia is of German origin. After WWII, many GIs brought home German gear that had been abandoned by German soldiers when they surrendered. In the process of acquiring his collection, McEwen said he became a pretty good bargainer.

Joe and Ann have four children, ten grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. None of the McEwen descendants have been in the military. But that’s one reason why Joe preserves his military heritage and memorabilia. When there was a draft, everyone knew someone who had military experience. During WWII, twelve percent of the American population served. Now the number is down to 0.5 percent. On Veterans Day and every day, we can show our appreciation for our military by asking people like Joe to share their experience, both the pleasures and the challenges of serving our great country.